Southern Maine, Season by Season

Saturday, February 24, 2018

"Between melting and freezing

The soul's sap quivers."

Valentine's Day/Ash Wednesday, and Little Gidding

This year, two holidays, Ash Wednesday and Valentine's Day, occur together. It can't be the only time this has happened, although the coincidence is certainly not frequent. But since it HAS now happened, one can consider whether the coincidence has meaning.

At first blush, the celebrations seem diametrically opposed: Valentine's Day, in modern observance, is a day of celebrating the gifts and joys of love - whether it's the fondness expressed in exchanges of small cards in classrooms or the more significant exchanges of flowers, chocolate, champagne, and kisses among the more mature; Ash Wednesday observance includes wearing dust, fasting, and contemplating one's own death.

On second, thought, however, Valentine's Day and Ash Wednesday do share an important component - one, it may be argued, that is central to the themes of both observances. And that's the element of hope. We can easily see that Valentine's Day is a celebration of hope: Will you be my Valentine? Will you be mine? Will you accept these flowers, these sweets, these good wishes? The hope of budding romance (or at least a more cordial relationship) is the aim in all of these common sentiments of the Day.

It's a bit harder to see the hope that underlies Ash Wednesday, for never was there a day so laden with gloominess. It's an Eeyore-sort-of-day: Woe is me, for I am a mere mortal! The ashes mark us for burial; the words with which they are administered chill one to the soul, "Remember, man; you are dust, and to dust you shall return." It's the curse of the expulsion from Eden, and I often imagined (in my youth) that I could see the Inferno Dante described open up at my feet as I walked back to my pew. One wrong step ... and down I'd go.

What actually saves us from that tumble? It's hope. Yup, that same hope that leaves would-be lovers trembling at their own daring is the hope that illuminates drear Ash Wednesday. Yes, in a theological sense, Lent points us on to Easter. But Easter seems a long way off in the middle of winter. The hope of Ash Wednesday, like the hope of Valentine's Day, is what makes each new day progressively more bearable as the world whirls towards the vernal equinox.

I am certainly not the only one to have noticed that these two observances share common underpinnings. Each year, for example, my Ash Wednesday observance includes a close reading of the magnificent T.S. Eliot poem Ash-Wednesday. It's a long and somewhat difficult read, encompassing as it does so much medieval and Marian imagery. But the poem perfectly expresses (at least to me) the arc of Lent - from a stony resistance at the beginning ("Because I do not hope to turn again ...") to the melting and growth of Spring in the heartbreaking final stanzas. Eliot completely understood that Lent's foundation is hope. All you have to do to see that he understood the quivering hope of Valentine's Day as well is to turn to Portrait of a Lady, and read,
                               But what have I, but what have I, my friend,
                               To give you, what can you receive from me?
                               Only the friendship and the sympathy
                               Of one about to reach her journey's end ...

(Yeah, go ahead and read the rest of the poem; it's an amazing miniature of suppressed longing. Isn't that Valentine's Day in a nutshell?)

This year, however, my reading at the beginning of Lent (and in the evening of Valentine's Day) was from another of Eliot's masterpieces, the Four Quartets. These have been my favorite Eliot works (along with Murder in the Cathedral) since I first read them, in high school. East Coker is where I usually go when I seek out the Quartets, but this week I turned to the final poem of the four, Little Gidding. Its beginning seemed to perfectly express the restless unease of late winter, the desire to burst forth and grow and bloom - which would happen except for the relentless icy cold that still grips the white world:
                                Midwinter spring is its own season
                                Sempiternal though sodden towards sundown,
                                Suspended in time, between pole and tropic.
                                When the short day is brightest, with frost and fire,
                                The brief sun flames the ice, on ponds and ditches,
                                In windless cold that is the heart's heat,
                                Reflecting in a watery mirror
                                A glare that is blindness in the early afternoon ...
                                Where is the summer, the unimaginable
                                Zero summer?

This morning, after a surprise nine inches of new snow, the last question is most apt. But these snowy mornings will become fewer very soon - by mid-morning, the shoveled walks had become bare and almost dry under the strengthening sun. It's coming. Wait - in hope.

                                   We shall not cease from exploration
                                And the end of all our exploring
                                Will be to arrive where we started
                                And know the place for the first time.
                                                                 - T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding (1942)

Winter, Biddeford Pool, Maine

Japanese peonies sheltered from the winter winds. Photograph by Kenichi Yamaguchi. Thanks, Kenichi-san!


Garden Projects and OffMill

On a very hopeful note - mid-February is just the time to begin thinking about gardening in the Spring. Although the garden boxes are still covered with snow, and the rose garden is still insulated with layers of balsam boughs from before Christmas, I cannot help but think about the season ahead.

Last summer, OffMill became a brand as well as an (occasional) blog about life, letters, cooking, and flower gardening in southern Maine:

At the Kennebunk Farmer's Market, selling bouquets of lilac and peonies, as well as milk-and-honey soaps and Bee Papers

Selling at the Market was - quite simply - a gas. People really enjoyed the flowers, the bouquet wrappings, and (especially) the Bee Papers (homemade paper embedded with seeds for plants that attract pollinators.) I sold out of the Papers and bouquets at every Market I attended.

This year, then, planning for the garden encompasses more than choosing what vegetables and flowers look best where. I have been busy thinking about what flowers work best for market bouquets, and what other "bee-friendly products" might make their way to market as well.

This year, I've taken a lot of inspiration from this book from Floret Farm (in Oregon), in which intensive growth methods are examined and explained:

Stay tuned for how the plans turn out! And, in the meantime, you can visit to see what's coming for this Market season.

One project I really would like to explore is a dedicated herb garden, much like the gorgeous one pictured here, from Strawbery Banke in Portsmouth, New Hampshire:

Note the woven fence and the water element (with floating flowers!) in the center. Yes, this is a garden dream, but a do-able one, I think.


Crustimoney Proseedcake

This Spring, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London is celebrating Winnie-the-Pooh and all of his friends in a magnificent exhibition called Exploring a Classic (go to the link above right now to experience some of its delights!) 

Since I am a devoted and unrepentant Pooh fan, I asked my beloved for a special Valentine's Day gift: the wonderful book that accompanies the exhibition: 

It is exquisite. I love it. 💝 It is also a wonderful accompaniment to the recently-released film, "Goodbye, Christopher Robin," which I beg you to see (it's available on demand; can Netflix be far behind?)

Now, any fan of Pooh knows that he credits himself with "very little brain" (but he's just being modest.) When Owl begins speaking of a "customary procedure," Bear meekly asks him to explain, "What's crustimoney proseedcake?"

Now, there's a number of ways to answer that question! One I am sure that Bear and the Piglet and their friends would enjoy is the following, which is a lovely moist cake with a surprising flavor:

Crustimoney Proseedcake (Grapefruit-Poppyseed Loaf with Yogurt Glaze)

 Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spray a loaf pan with cooking spray, line it with parchment paper, and spray again. Zest one whole grapefruit, and mix the zest into 1 cup granulated sugar with your fingers until the sugar is moist and smells of grapefruit. Add the sugar to a stand mixer bowl (or to a large bowl) along with 2 eggs, 1/3 cup vegetable oil (I use canola), and 1 teaspoon vanilla extract. Mix on high speed for about 3 minutes, until the batter is thick and light in color.  While the mixer is working, whisk together 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, 2 teaspoons baking powder, and 3/4 teaspoon kosher salt in a small bowl. Add half the dry ingredient mix to the egg-sugar emulsion in the mixer, and mix on low speed. Add 3/4 cup plain Greek yogurt to the mixer, and mix on low speed. Follow with the rest of the dry ingredients. To this mix add 5-6 tablespoons fresh grapefruit juice (squeezed from the fruit you zested) and 1 tablespoon blue poppy seeds. Scrape the batter into the loaf pan and smooth the top. Bake for about 1 hour, or until a skewer inserted near the center of the cake comes out clean. Set loaf pan on a rack, and prick the cake all over with a skewer. Drizzle 3 - 4 tablespoons grapefruit juice over the cake, and allow to cool slightly. Using the parchment paper, lift cake out of the pan, and allow to cool completely. Meanwhile, make a glaze from 1/2 cup confectioner's sugar, 1 tablespoon Greek yogurt, 1 teaspoon water, and a pinch of salt. Dribble the glaze over the cake, and top with an additional sprinkle of poppy seeds.

I think Pooh would enjoy this "Proseedcake" when it's time for a little something!


Some Flowers

One of the smartest things I did last fall, I think, was to stash a bag of daffodil bulbs in the refrigerator. They didn't take up much room. I potted them up a couple of weeks ago, and ... voila! 

Happy Midwinter Spring!